Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic remains, and we continue to be stuck with an outdated immigration system. But Team OIRA still had so many blessings to count during 2022. For one, our team enjoyed waking up every morning to a federal administration much more supportive of immigrants and refugees. And we have absolutely loved sharing story after story with each other of Seattle residents stepping up to make Seattle a Welcoming City, like this one about residents coming together to help Afghan children adapt to school and this one about refugee artisans creating hats and scarves for local homeless youth, and this recent one about a Vietnamese family reaching out to help a Ukrainian family.
As we at OIRA reflect on last year’s ups and downs for the communities we serve, we wanted to highlight our favorite ups that we experienced both here and beyond.
1. Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities welcome new OIRA director Hamdi Mohamed!
In the middle of 2022, immigrant justice advocates in Seattle welcomed OIRA’s new director Hamdi Mohamed. Since joining OIRA, Director Hamdi hit the ground running. She met with over 30 community leaders and department directors, developed budget strategies and conducted team-building activities. Her stated goal is to “ensure OIRA meets the unique needs of Seattle’s most vulnerable immigrant and refugee communities and help provide the services and programs that have allowed me to be here today.” Here is Director Hamdi in her own words:
“I often share the history of my family fleeing war and living unhoused for many years before coming to the U.S. as Somali refugees. Because of my lived and professional experiences, I feel a deep need to advocate and serve our communities and ensure they have access to services, programs, and pathways to economic success.”
2. The Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide raised almost half a million dollars for migrants fleeing Ukraine and other refugee communities.
In April of this year, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell reached out to the Seattle Symphony to organize the Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide. King County Executive Dow Constantine and 33 other King County mayors also joined in sponsoring this free program that was also livestreamed. This fundraising showcase featured the Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot and local Ukrainian artists who all volunteered their time for this benefit concert. The sold-out show not only displayed Seattle’s solidarity for Ukrainian citizens and refugees, it also raised $429,000. Seventy percent of these funds supported organizations helping Ukrainians both in King County and abroad and 30 percent went to nonprofits assisting other refugees locally. The 30 percent portion of money was referred to as the Seattle Refugee Fund (see below).
3. Funds raised from the Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide awarded to local immigrant-serving organizations.
The awardees and their amounts from each funding source include:
30% of the funds raised from the Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide (Seattle Refugee Fund)
- CAIR Washington: $32,000
- Entre Hermanos: $32,000
- Tigrean Community Association: $32,000
- West African Community Council (WACC): $32,000
70% of the funds raised from the Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide
- International Rescue Community in Seattle, Washington: $86,000
- Ukrainian Community Center of Washington: $215,000
Upon receiving the funds on behalf of Tigrean Community Association, Executive Director Fitsum-Birhan Beyene shared that he had recently became a U.S. citizen, after 17 years of living in the United States. He also described the severe humanitarian crisis in the Tigray Region and implored City leaders to mention this situation in future public remarks.
Regarding the awards, OIRA Director Hamdi Mohamed said, “This fund and the awardees do not just reflect the values of the government of the City of Seattle, but also of our welcoming residents for which our city is known for. And the City of Seattle stands with all refugees who are in need of relief and a path to a better life – supporting them will continue to be a priority.”
4. Community members celebrate our first in-person Citizenship Workshop since 2019!
On Saturday, October 29, 2022, we celebrated our first in-person citizenship workshop since before the start of the pandemic. Thanks to clinic sponsors OneAmerica, Korean Community Service Center (KCSC), and Seattle Parks and Recreation, 22 people registered to attend and were screened. And 19 attendees left the Bitter Lake Community Center in North Seattle with a completed N-400. This citizenship clinic was the last for 2022. And New Citizen Campaign partner organizations are working to create the 2023 schedule for communities across the city.
If you are an eligible permanent resident, you can also access FREE naturalization help. Learn more: http://seattle.gov/NCC.
5. The Naturalize 2 Million by 2022 Campaign naturalized 1.878 million people!
In December, USCIS reported that it naturalized 1,023,200 people in Fiscal Year 2022. This was a significant milestone, as in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. experienced extreme drops in citizenship applications.
Combined with the Fiscal Year 2021 data showing 855,000 naturalizations, this means nearly two million people (a total of 1,878,200) have naturalized over the last two fiscal years! Back in early 2022, the City of Seattle joined the 2 Million by 2022 Campaign organized by the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) to encourage two million eligible permanent residents to obtain their citizenship by the end of 2022.
NPNA, campaign partners, and naturalization advocates across the country all played important roles to reach 93% of the goal (see below for our contribution). From NPNA:
“With your help, the Naturalize #2MillionBy2022 campaign became a powerful messaging vehicle that expanded beyond our networks, reached advocates, service providers, government agencies, and, most importantly, eligible to naturalize community members. While the victory of naturalizing nearly 2 million new citizens is not ours alone, this campaign demonstrated a vision of what is possible- and we’re not stopping here.”
6. OIRA’s citizenship programs contribute to the 2 Million by 2022 Campaign by assisting over 1,450 new Americans!
Did you know that OIRA has two citizenship programs to help eligible residents naturalize: the New Citizen Program (NCP) and New Citizen Campaign (NCC)? NCP organizations provide free naturalization services to eligible immigrants and refugees. Located throughout Seattle and King County, NCP organizations provide legal assistance to clients with low incomes, including many who are elderly, illiterate, or have limited English skills. Sometimes NCP agencies will also assist permanent residents with the preparation and filing of immigration applications and fee waivers.
NCC utilizes a variety of tactics to engage permanent residents, which include the organizing of citizenship clinics in neighborhoods, outreach and education, citizenship curriculum and legal assistance, and engagement with local and national partners, all to achieve our goal of naturalizing all eligible Seattle/King County immigrants.
Both programs combined provided over 2,757 services to over 1,450 people. NCP provided 5,832 hours of citizenship training to roughly 200 new Americans. And NCC citizenship workshops resulted in 191 completed citizenship applications. Newly naturalized Americans emigrated to the U.S. from such countries as the Philippines, China, Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, and Ethiopia to name a few.
Our work remains in high demand, as immigrants continue to be an essential source of population growth for Washington state. From this recent Seattle Times article: “The state grew by 37,500 from international migration [in 2022], exceeding the previous high of 33,100 in 2015.”
7. OIRA’s Language Access Program experienced significant growth to ensure departments across the City are able to offer high-quality language access.
Under executive order, the City of Seattle must ensure that every city resident, especially immigrants and refugees, can access local government services and information, regardless of their language proficiency. OIRA’s Language Access program continually works to fulfill this executive order by collaborating with City departments to support them in providing accessible information and services to English language learner community members. Since 2019, OIRA’s Language Access Program has undergone significant expansion.
For example, in mid-2021, OIRA launched the translation management system Smartcat to centralize the City’s translation system, streamline the working relationship with local community translators, and save all translated content to a shared database for later reference. Since the implementation of Smartcat, the City has spent over $1.35 million to translate 2.2 million words in over 15 languages to ensure important programs and information were accessible to vulnerable immigrant residents.
In addition, all City departments are required to submit a Language Access Plan to OIRA detailing how they will prioritize funds from their existing departmental budget to implement language access. In 2022, OIRA received plans from 25 departments. The work of the Language Access Program also includes organizing Language Access Liaisons in every department and hosting language access learning sessions for all City employees. Throughout this year, OIRA hosted 8 of these sessions, with 398 employees participating to learn and discover the latest best practices in the expanding discipline of language access.
8. OIRA’s Ready to Work Program helped over 160 residents improve their English skills and find better jobs!
Did you know our Ready to Work (RTW) program is a nationally recognized model for helping immigrants increase their English-language skills and get better jobs? Operated by Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), Neighborhood House, and Literacy Source, RTW is a free, classroom-based program for adult immigrants that offers English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes (Levels 1-4) , culturally competent case management, digital literacy skills training, and other employment training with the goal of attaining a better, more well-paying job.
This year, RTW served 166 immigrant residents originating from such countries as Somalia, Honduras, and Vietnam, and 134 participants graduated from the program. Graduates were able to acquire new employment opportunities in such industries as healthcare, education, and food services.
Another recent RTW highlight was this Seattle Times article profiling 71-year-old Ethiopian immigrant Alem Birhan Taye who graduated from ACRS’ RTW program to move on to a well-paying job at Lumen Field. Today, he is a U.S. citizen and was able to petition for two of his children to immigrate to the U.S. He is proud to share his story and encourage other immigrants to access the assistance they need. “‘If it helps one person to change themselves and change their families, I’m so grateful for that,’ Taye said.”
9. OIRA’s Legal Defense Network continued to provide legal assistance to over 160 immigrants.
Launched in 2017, the Seattle Legal Defense Network (LDN) funds local community-based organizations to provide free immigration legal services to income-eligible Seattle residents who are in detention, facing deportation, or at risk because of their immigration status.
- In each quarter of 2022 over 160 people received full direct representation in legal immigration cases, including:
- Termination of removal proceedings
- Withholding of Removal
- Relief under Convention Against Torture
- Special Immigrant Juvenile Status
- U Visa
- Cancellation of Removal
- 27 new unaccompanied minors received full direct representation in immigration proceedings.
- 80 people enrolled in the new Dedicated Docket program at the Seattle Immigration Court received limited legal services including in-depth screening, legal advice, and pro se form assistance.
- 35 people obtained work authorization.
- 61 people obtained permanent or temporary immigration status.
10. Despite a more pro-immigrant federal administration, OIRA continued to guide the City of Seattle’s welcoming policies.
One of OIRA’s roles in the City of Seattle is to ensure that as a Welcoming City, we are continually advocating for and supporting policies at all levels of government that help immigrants and refugees thrive. For example, this past September, OIRA made sure that as a City, we signed onto this letter to President Biden encouraging the administration to reaffirm the United States’ longstanding commitment to refugees by maintaining the refugee admission goal of 125,000 migrants for Fiscal Year 2023 and ensuring that refugee assistance programs are appropriately funded. Altogether we joined 13 pro-immigrant advocacy actions.
In addition, the City of Seattle submitted three public comments regarding federal rule changes impacting immigrants and refugees. Whenever the federal government proposes administrative rule changes that impact how a department plans on implementing a specific policy or program, members of the public are permitted to comment on these proposals. OIRA often comments on these proposed rule changes on behalf of the City.
You can see a list of OIRA’s pro-immigrant and pro-refugee advocacy actions and public comments at our Welcoming Seattle page here: https://www.seattle.gov/iandraffairs/issues-and-policies/welcoming-city.
As we venture forth into 2023, the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs continues to be proud to serve you, the people of Seattle, regardless of your citizenship or immigration status. We have exciting things planned for this next year. Stay tuned to our blog for future developments. And thank YOU for helping make Seattle truly a Welcoming City!